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AW Extra - Aged Cherry Finish


Aged Cherry Finish

Wipe on years of age in a few easy steps.

By Tim Johnson

If you want to make a woodworker gnash his teeth, ask him to make new cherry look like cherry that has aged naturally to a rich, brownish hue.

Why is this challenge so agonizing? Because staining cherry, even with stain that's the perfect color, doesn't do the trick.

Here's why: Cherry’s surface is covered with legions of tiny pores that are almost impossible to see—until you apply stain. Stain turns these pores dark, so they stand out. Naturally aged cherry doesn't show dark pores; so it's impossible to create an authentic look with stain alone.

Production shops solve the problem by spraying on toned lacquer finishes; old masters pad on shellac and handmixed glaze. Here's a no-fuss method that uses off-the-shelf products and produces great results.

1. Wipe on a coat of General Finishes’ Gel Topcoat clear urethane finish (Photo 1, at right and Source, below). Apply the finish generously, using an overlapping a circular motion to work the finish into the pores. Remove the excess finish by wiping across the grain, followed by wiping with the grain. After the finish is thoroughly dry (6 to 8 hours in good conditions), lightly scuff the surface with 320 grit sandpaper or 0000 steel wool.

2. Wipe on a second coat of Gel Topcoat. Let it dry and lightly scuff the surface as before.

3. Wipe on a coat of General Finishes’ Candlelite gel stain (Photo 2). I think it's the perfect color for aging cherry. As this stain sets up pretty quickly, divide the work into manageable sections. Apply the stain liberally, then wipe with the grain to remove the excess. The trick is to remove all the streaks, blotches and rag marks while leaving as much color on the surface as you can. A rag that's partially loaded with stain works best. I like to use two rags: one more heavily loaded than the other, so that I can add color and remove marks as needed. When you're done, take a careful look in good light to make sure the color is uniform and goof-free. Let the finish dry thoroughly.

4. Wipe on a second coat of Candlelite gel stain to deepen the tone.

5. Protect the color layer by wiping on additional coats of Gel Topcoat. For wear surfaces, such as table tops, you could opt to build a more durable finish by brushing or spraying on coats of polyurethane.

Usually you can't apply stain over a finish. But the process works with these gel stains because they're actually colored gel varnish. Applying Candlelite gel stain over Gel Topcoat is similar to applying a layer of toned finish, and because the wood's surface has already been sealed, the stain doesn't darken the pores. This method reduces blotching, for the same reason. Another benefit of sealing the wood before staining is that if you don't like the color the stain imparts, you can wipe it off with mineral spirits (as long as the stain is still wet), without harming the Gel Topcoat underneath.

Each additional layer of gel stain deepens the wood's tone. Another way to achieve a deeper tone is to skip Step 2 and apply stain over one coat of clear Topcoat. But as the wood's surface isn't as thoroughly sealed , you'll end up with some dark pores and a little more blotching. A third method is to simply wait, as the cherry will slowly darken naturally under the stain.

You can alter the wood's tone by using a different gel stain color for the second coat (Step 4). Stains with names such as "brown mahogany," "walnut" or "mission" usually make cherry more brown; "mahogany" and "cherry" stains usually make cherry more red. Always choose gel stain by its color, however, not by its name.


General Finishes, generalfinishes. com, 800-783-6050, Gel Topcoat, $13.99 per pt., $19.99 per qt.; Candlelite Gel Stain, $13.99 per pt., $19.99 per qt.

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker February/March 2009, issue #140.

February/March 2009, issue #140

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Click on any of the images to view a larger version

1. Wipe on two coats of General Finishes' Gel Topcoat, after finish-sanding to 180 grit. Let each coat dry thoroughly. This step seals the wood's pores.

2. Wipe on one or more coats of General Finishes' Candlelite gel stain. Because the wood's surface is sealed, the gel stain adds an even layer of color that makes cherry look like it has aged naturally.

Blend Color Mismatches

Use the same method to blend cherry sapwood and heartwood, plywood and solid wood, and even color variations between boards. Begin by sealing the entire surface with one or two coats of Gel Topcoat. This step also shows the wood’s natural color, so you can choose the most complementary stain color: Candlelite gel stain is a great place to start. When the Topcoat has dried, apply Candlelite gel stain to the lightcolored sapwood only. Gel stain is perfect for this job, because its thick, nodrip consistency makes it easy to control. When this first coat of stain has dried, apply a second coat of Candlelite gel stain over the entire surface.


John Gray wrote re: Aged Cherry Finish
on 06-23-2011 5:37 PM

I guess if you set it wood out in the sun to darken it you would not be buying any of their products would you. ;-)))

Don't get me wrong I use their stains on some other things, just not Cherry, I put my cherry out in the sun and let the UV Rays darken it.